The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

First it was Cerritos, California, and now it's Chaska, Minnesota. The little town on the outskirts of Minneapolis-St. Paul has blanketed itself with enough wi-fi coverage to make itself a city-wide hotspot. A further connection with Cerritos: The same company, Tropos, is doing the installation.

Like Cerritos, this isn't a freebie: Access to the wireless high-speed network will be available to residential customers for the low-low price of $16 a month. Sounds like a great deal, and wonderful alternative to the cable and phones companies. The more this spreads, the more the price of broadband will come down.

There is some concern over the structural design of this wide-area wi-fi deployment:
Using the short-range technology for long-range networks is like "using a hammer to drive in a screw," said Derek Kerton of the Curtain Group, a Silicon Valley wireless-technology consulting firm. "You can do it, but wouldn't it be better if you found a better tool?"

Such tools include wireless technologies such as EvDO and EDGE now being used by the likes of Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless to offer citywide service around the country. Wi-Fi, in contrast, is designed to be a "wireless local-area network" technology, with an emphasis on the "local," Kerton argued.

While praising Tropos' ingenuity, Kerton warned that the firm's city networks could be subjected to interference from other Wi-Fi networks as well as from cordless phones, microwave ovens and other devices that use the same wireless spectrum.

Ron Pequette, a Tropos sales director who appeared with Mayer at a Tuesday press conference, said the firm has the interference problem licked.
It sounds like Kerton is pretty much shilling for the big telecom companies that potentially could be hurt by efforts like this. Not only would Verizon Wireless find it harder to push EvDO, the DSL service offered by affiliate company Verizon Corp. would also take a hit.

On the other hand, this kind of project does stetch wi-fi access points well beyond their original intended capabilities. A patchwork building of wi-fi zones might work in a tightly-packed urban community or apartment building, but over a miles-wide area... It could be that this is just a transitory solution before a more dedicated technology is ready to do the job.